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How Captain Marvel and Brie Larson beat the internet’s sexist trolls

Trolls tried to “review-bomb” the movie with fake reviews ahead of its release.

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel in Captain Marvel.
Brie Larson as Captain Marvel in Captain Marvel.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Despite the best efforts of a bad-faith and sexist smear campaign, Captain Marvel — Marvel Studios’ first solo superhero movie about a female superhero — is earning positive critical reviews, and made $153 million domestically/$455 million worldwide in its opening weekend at the box office.

For months, the film has been targeted by trolls. After its first trailer was released in September, some “fans” of the character photoshopped smiles onto star Brie Larson’s promotional photos — essentially the digital version of the “smile more” catcall — because they thought the actress was stiff and wooden in the role. Larson’s physique was called into question, as part of a debate over whether or not she was strong enough to play a hero who will be one of the strongest Avengers.

In February, as Captain Marvel’s first pre-release screenings were held for press, the movie became the subject of several negative user reviews posted to the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes by people who hadn’t even seen it, blasting Larson’s performance and trashing the movie itself. Although, to call their assessments “reviews” is generous, as they primarily complained about Larson for being sexist against men, expressing anger that seemed to stem from Larson being vocal about the lack of diversity in Hollywood and among film critics.

Larson didn’t back down, and during the press tour for the movie has spoken about how important feminism and diversity are to her, and how they are intrinsic to her character’s story.

The focused backlash against Captain Marvel wasn’t a random occurrence. Previously, trolls had mobilized online against Star Wars: The Last Jedi, harassing its cast and denouncing the movie for being too progressive. Movies like Black Panther and the 2016 all-women remake of Ghostbusters saw similar attacks (harassment of actors, fake negative reviews, etc.) too.

A brief look at the movies that have been targeted by trolls in the last few years makes it easy to see that this kind of backlash consistently erupts when women and non-white characters are at the center of Marvel Studios superhero flicks or other cinematic franchises with long, less-diverse histories.

It’s essentially become a knee-jerk response — to the point that Rotten Tomatoes announced in late February that it would tweak its user review feature in order to stop letting users post audience reviews prior to a movie’s release. The move was a clear effort to cut down on users who abuse the privilege by posting fake negative reviews meant to bring down films like Captain Marvel and others with stars who are not white or male.

Rotten Tomatoes’ policy change, along with Larson’s grace under fire and critical praise for the film, have greatly reduced its trolls’ ability to maintain a presence surrounding the movie. Its projected opening weekend box office of over $100 million has also helped to drown out the voices of those who’ve suggested a woman-fronted film can’t succeed. And while Captain Marvel is not the first movie and Larson not the first actress to face the wrath of online trolls — nor will they be the last — they have made considerable progress in finding a better way to deal with them.

Efforts to denounce Captain Marvel are part of a bigger problem

Online targeting of Captain Marvel is just the latest example of a bigger problem.

In 2017, so-called “fans” targeted Star Wars: The Last Jedi for not representing what Star Wars is “meant to be.” Many were upset that The Last Jedi and its predecessor, The Force Awakens, featured a powerful female protagonist who was seen as the last hope for the good guys.

Further, the current Star Wars cast is as racially diverse as it ever was, which also made the franchise a target of online trolling. In June 2018, actress Kelly Marie Tran, who is Vietnamese American and Star Wars’ first female lead of color, deleted her Instagram account after months of harassment from Star Wars “fans.”

Before Star Wars, there were online attacks on the 2016 all-female Ghostbusters remake. And in between, in a case similar to Larson being debated as the right actress to play Captain Marvel, there were cries that Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot was not curvy enough to play the hero, while some people got mad at Warner Bros. for promoting women-only screenings of the film.

Captain Marvel and Brie Larson have started to create a blueprint for how to handle toxic trolls

It’s not difficult to see the common thread that superhero and other franchise movies with woman and people of color as protagonists are regularly met by toxic trolling online.

But as the face of Captain Marvel, Larson has handled toxic responses to the film with grace and savvy. In interviews, she has championed how empowering her role is, how important the character is, and how it’s unapologetically feminist.

“There’s just no question that we would have to show what it means to be all different kinds of women, that we don’t just have one type,” Larson told Entertainment Weekly. “To me, that’s a part of what the meditation of this movie is: It’s female strength, but what is female strength? What are the different ways that can look?”

She has also talked about the responsibility she feels under the gigawatt spotlight that’s been turned on her now that she’s Captain Marvel.

“I’ve never craved the spotlight that often comes along with success in this business,” she told Marie Claire. “It’s a by-product of the profession and a sign of the times. But any uncomfortableness I feel is balanced by the knowledge that it gives me the ability to advocate for myself and others.”

Larson and Marvel have shifted the conversation around Captain Marvel to focus on the important message attached to its hero, on the work Larson put into the role, and on the movie itself, instead of engaging with trolls.

But that isn’t to say that Larson has just ignored the trolls and moved on. As Bloomberg had noted, she also savvily responded on social media by calling out the double standards Captain Marvel has faced by sharing a picture of the typically serious male Avengers with altered smirks, and by posting videos of the extremely difficult workouts she was completing in her preparation for the role (including pushing a Jeep).

Captain Marvel got an assist from Rotten Tomatoes

While Larson and Marvel have made a clear and admirable effort to not fuel toxic conversations around the character, there are some things they can’t control, like the practice called “review bombing” —in which bad-faith users flood sites like Rotten Tomatoes with bad ratings and negative reviews of a movie, whether they’ve seen it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes tweaking its user review policy ahead of Captain Marvel’s release was a big step in addressing users who abuse the system, because it handicapped one of the trolls’ go-to behaviors.

Unfortunately, it’s not a be-all end-all fix: Bad-faith audience reviews have popped up on Rotten Tomatoes now that Captain Marvel has hit theaters (there’s currently an 80 percent to 58 percent approval discrepancy between critics and audience reviews). Meanwhile, on IMDb, which employs a similar system of allowing users to rate movies, there were over 4,500 1-star user votes for Captain Marvel before the movie was even released.

But in blocking those sight-unseen reviews until the release date, Rotten Tomatoes quashed them from being the story about Captain Marvel.

And what matters most to Marvel and its parent company Disney is how big of an earner Captain Marvel turns out to be.

The movie made $455 million worldwide in its opening weekend at the box office — the sixth largest opening in history, according to Box Office Mojo, and the second largest for a Marvel film aside from 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. In North America, Captain Marvel opened to $153 million, scoring Marvel’s seventh-largest opening weekend domestically; it also scored Marvel’s second-largest domestic opening weekend for a film that isn’t a sequel or an Avengers team-up (behind Black Panther, which earned $202 million domestically when it opened in 2018).

And now there are 455 million reasons not to listen to trolls.